Day 1: When were you last deprotagonized? What happened and how did you reassert your agency?

I wanted to share a few thoughts before I got my own first answer out there.

First, we gotta be able to laugh at ourselves, right? I’m 100% certain there are folks who saw the original questions and turned their nose up at it: disrespectful, jerky, gaming is srsbzns. I’m here to say it’s okay to laugh at our scene (“statistically insignificant” is I think what Jason Corley would call it), particularly given the occasional bouts of self-importance that roll through it.

Second: no correct way to read or answer any of these, okay? I worked hard to make them serious and not-serious, and I’ll talk about each question a little for the folks who follow the Indie Game Reading Club but maybe aren’t steeped in the history and culture of our thing.

Third: I know some folks may have axes to grind (see point 1). I can’t do much about those folks. I hereby reject all responsibility for threads that go sour.

Indie gamers can be jerks. Trad gamers can be jerks. The vast majority of folks who play these games and have not declared allegiance to any tribe? They can be jerks too. Gamers can be jerks. They can also be amazing.

Read charitably and laugh at us/them/yourselves.


1. When were you last deprotagonized? What happened and how did you reassert your agency?

Some background: There’s a reason this is the first question! “Deprotagonized” is an awesomely pretentious term that is, like, the foremost thing I personally think of when I think “indie game” or “story-game” or whatever. My personal take on it is that this is how you feel when the GM tells you what your character is doing. You thought you were the protagonist in your own story, but really you’re just an actor in theirs.

Is that a function of the game’s design or the GM? Sometimes both, yeah? And is it actually objectively “bad?” Oh gosh, who knows. Where it rubs me wrong, personally, is when my expectations aren’t met: I thought I was gonna be the star of my own show, and maybe you didn’t explicitly promise that but you also didn’t tell me you had your own storyline. So we sat down together and we weren’t of one mind as to how the experience would proceed.

“Deprotagonized” has this wonderful veneer of victimization. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s just a mismatch.

MadJay Brown already told a great story of deprotagonization that involved me (3:16 game some poor sap at a con tried running off a contest entry, not even the final published game, and the GM had no idea how to run it other than as His Story). But the one that sticks with me the very most was — wait for it — a D&D game! A friend was deep into 3.5 and we went along with it for a few sessions. He had promised it would run out in 10 sessions, and on the 10th session we had the final showdown.

Well, so, given we knew the advancement scheme and how much time we had, we all worked out our critical upgrade pathways to absolutely maximize our toons for that aforementioned showdown. We arrived strapped.

You’re already saying to yourself “holy shit Paul, you were already playing a tactical boardgame at that point, what the fuck protagonizing were you expecting?!” right? Well, so, he’s actually a pretty even-handed GM, and up to the final showdown I had in fact had some say in where to go and what to do. It was still all aimed at that final showdown, though.

The big battle is described. We are strapped. It is not an interesting tactical challenge. I think my wizard has some kind of … spell, fuck if I can remember, that lets me ask questions from the spirit world? The details are super fuzzy. But I’ve gone to great lengths to maximize that because getting those answers has turned out to be key to concluding this big boss fight.

Well so there’s like…a 5% chance, maybe… baked into the spell (1 in 20) that I’ll get back nonsense answers when I cast the spell. Hey what a surprise, I get a nonsense answer and our efforts to proceed are instantly halted. I think I have some…feat or something, seriously D&D nerds, you don’t need to correct me on the technical details here, that lets me cast that spell again. And what a surprise apparently I roll a 1 in 20 again. It’s behind the GM screen. Who can say.

In this particular tale of woe, what struck me was my own personal take on what “deprotagonized” actually meant in the context of a tactical challenge game like this D&D campaign had shaped up to be. And again, that’s some mix of what’s written in Teh Roolz (tactically oriented advancement) and how the GM chooses to engage with Teh Roolz. But by gosh did I feel burned! I had poured 10 solid weeks of “work” into working out the level-ups, coordinated with other players, really worked the system. And it was for naught. Had nothing to do with storyline or being the protagonist, not really, and everything to do with being misled about how much agency the players might be allowed to have by the GM.

Throughout the growth of indie gaming there’s been a lot of really excellent talk — some acrimonious! — about the power dynamic of traditional roleplaying. “Deprotagonized” has always stood in as code for that talk, for me.

The list of all the questions is here.

17 thoughts on “Day 1: When were you last deprotagonized? What happened and how did you reassert your agency?”

  1. Mark Delsing Well even if we pretend it were real, wouldn’t the system be “deprotaganising” him? It’s removing forward motion from the character through failure of something they have fully invested themselves in.

  2. Aaron Griffin I would not say so. Failing a roll is not deprotagonization, as I understand it. Paul ostensibly casts the spell knowing that there is a 1 in 20 chance that he will receive a nonsense answer. That sort of resource gambling is totally a part of functional D&D.

    I’d also argue that, had the rolls been made in the open, this same situation would probably be a memorable anecdote, rather than a tale of woe. “Dude, remember that time you rolled two 1s in a row during that boss battle?”

  3. Aaron Griffin I don’t understand. Of course people are actually doing this. Did you think I was fucking kidding?

    I guess I should make extra clear that Point #3 applies to my own threads as well. 😛

  4. With games, expectation is kind of everything. Honestly, with life expectation is kind of everything. I think the terms we use to describe games can create misleading expectations. But I’ve had that rant going for at least a decade now!

  5. Phil Lewis oh dude. Yeah.

    The whole language-of-gaming thing is so deeply weird. The shadow war being fought for the very definition of make-believe. It’s an ouroboros.

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